Tuesday, December 31, 2013

iTunes U: Courses in Classics and Biblical Studies

Every time class registration rolled around I would pore over the course listings for the many different departments at the university, wishing I had an endless amount of electives I could take.  Now with things like iTunes U I can sit in on lectures in some of those classes outside of my major that I just wasn't able to fit into my degree program, whether its psychology, history, or physics.  This interdisciplinary online buffet also includes some good resources in my areas of focus, the ancient world and religious studies.  Below are a few that you might want to check out.  I've broken them down into four categories: (1) Biblical Studies, (2) Ancient Greece, (3) Rome, and (4) Religious Studies.  When you're done with all of these, why not move on to learn about Quantum Mechanics?

Biblical Studies
Christine Hayes
Open Yale course
[Check out Hayes' openyalecourses book Introduction to the Bible)

Shaye J.D. Cohen
Harvard, iTunes U

Dale B. Martin
Open Yale course 
[Check out Martin's openyalecourses book New Testament History and Literature)

Stanford, iTunes U

Steven Schweitzer
AMBS, iTunes U

Daniel B. Wallace
The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts, iTunes U

Ancient Greece
Gillian Shepherd
LaTrobe, iTunes U

Gillian Shepherd
LaTrobe, iTunes U

Monday, December 30, 2013

Ancient Handwriting

Medical doctors are not the only ones with bad handwriting.
If you've studied any languages that use a non-roman script, then you may have had your own handwriting let-downs.  You look at the perfectly printed letters in a critical edition or the breathtaking artistry of a scribe in a particularly nice manuscript, and then you go to scribble down a line or two of your own and it looks like -- well, scribbles.

What if we saw learning to write well as part of the process of acquiring an ancient language?  What if we saw it as a way of more fully appreciating the language and perhaps gaining a better understanding of the ancient scribes who copied all of this wonderful stuff for us?

If this is something that interests you, then you might check out The World Encyclopedia of Calligraphy: the Ultimate Compendium on the Art of Fine Writing.  It is an attractive volume with lots of colour photographs.  It offers some introductory information on the art of calligraphy before going into detail on some of the world's most interesting calligraphic traditions.  These include: Roman scripts, Cyrilic, Arabic, Indic scripts, Tibetan, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean.  For those who study classics and the Judeo-Christian traditions you might be particularly interested in the sections on: Greek, Ashkenazi Hebrew, Sephardi Hebrew, Dead Sea Scroll Hebrew, Syriac, Georgian, and Armenian.  I picked up the book in a public library in order to learn how to write Ge'ez better.  It does have a section on Ethiopic, although it is quite short (2 pages).  I did learn, however, that to write good Ge'ez your pen angle needs to be anywhere from perfectly flat to 10 degrees, a helpful little tip.

If you come across other resources that might be helpful for those wishing to improve their writing of ancient or medieval scripts, please post them in the comment section below!  Learn World Calligraphy is a title that come up in my searches, but I have not gotten my hands on it yet.

Friday, December 13, 2013

"Deformity and Disability in Greece and Rome."

Nicole Kelley's essay "Deformity and Disability in Greece and Rome," which is part of the edited volume This Abled Body: Rethinking Disabilities and Biblical Studies, offers an interesting and brief engagement with disabilities and deformities in classical antiquity.  She opens by drawing attention to some of the methodological and definitional problems in trying to understand the historical reality of disabled and deformed persons in the ancient world.  Despite the probability that disability and deformity were very common, the evidence is relatively sparse, and portrayals in art and literature may not always reflect social reality.  The ancients also lacked clearly defined categories like "disabled" or "deformed."  Kelley spends the rest of her essay focusing on two figures from Greek mythology: the god Hephaestus, who is often portrayed as congenitally lame, and Teiresias, the blind prophet.

In her discussion of Hephaestus she gives attention to other sources that address congenital disabilities and deformities, including evidence that idealizes the exposure or elimination of infants who are deemed unfit.  Whether or not these texts reflect actual practice remains an open question.  She also discusses the role of deformed people in entertainment, mentioning, among other things, the evidence that deformed persons were kept as pets in the Roman world and sold in "monster markets."  Kelley's treatment of Hephaestus closes by mentioning the economic prospects of disabled persons, noting that there is evidence that their economic outlook "was not necessarily bleak or characterized by utter dependence on family and friends" (41).      

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Disability and Eschatology: Resources in the Hebrew Prophets

One of the ways that communities can challenge ableism is to self-critically reflect on how disability fits into our conceptions of Utopia.  In our idealized visions of the world, are there persons with disabilities?  How we answer this question can reveal a lot about our attitudes towards disability, and can shape the way we engage related issues in our world.  Recently I have been giving some attention to the issue of disability and eschatology, looking in particular at Judeo-Christian visions of idealized or restored futures from a disability justice perspective.  There are of course plenty of eschatological imaginings, both ancient and modern, which leave no room for disability, but rather envision the elimination of persons with disability or their transformation so that they conform to ableist assumptions about ideal bodies/minds.  From a constructive perspective, I personally think it is important for both secular and religious communities to develop eschatological visions which continue to include persons with disabilities, but have social orders in which all are granted equal access and dignity.  So, one of the things I have been doing is looking for examples, particularly in ancient texts, that can be interacted with in constructing these kinds of eschatologies in western worldviews.  Here are a few interesting examples from the Hebrew prophets:
"Behold, I will bring them from the north country, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, the woman with child and her who is in travail, together; a great company, they shall return here.  With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back, I will make them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble; for I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my first-born" (Jeremiah 31:8-9).     
"In that day, says the LORD, I will assemble the lame and gather those who have been driven away, and those whom I have afflicted; and the lame I will make the remnant; and those who were cast off, a strong nation; and the LORD will reign over them in Mount Zion from this time forth and for evermore" (Micah 4:6-7).

"Behold, at that time I will deal with all your oppressors. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.  At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you together; yea, I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes,” says the LORD" (Zephaniah 3:19-20).

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Midrash Vayissa'u

My copy of the much anticipated Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: More Noncanonical Scriptures came in the mail this week.  The book is a buffet of fascinating texts, but I was especially excited to see Martha Himmelfarb's introduction and translation of Midrash Vayissa'u (or Wayiaasa'u) (143-159).  This is a text I have been working with in my thesis research and I have been startled that more English language scholarship has not been devoted to it.  I am hoping that Himmelfarb's contribution encourages further research on this fascinating work.  Her translation of the war with the Ninevites is particularly important, as this tradition has been largely overlooked.   

Midrash Vayissa'u is familiar to students of both the Testament of Judah and the Book of Jubilees, since it preserves traditions about Jacob and his sons' wars with the Amorites and the Edomites that parallel the accounts in these two earlier works.  While I do not think we can rule out some form of influence by Jubilees or the Testament of Judah on this medieval composition (I think this influence was indirect), it seems to be primarily dependent on sources/traditions that it shares in common with Jubilees and the Testament.  This means that despite its later date it can give us insights into texts and traditions that existed in the Hellenistic period, making it interesting not only for those who study medieval Jewish literature, but students of Second Temple Judaism as well. 

If extracanonical traditions about wars between the Israelite ancestors and their neighbors is something you find interesting, then give Midrash Vayissa'u a read.  Himmelfarb's introduction and translation are now the best place to start, and if you are interested in digging further you might check out some of these sources as well.

Primary sources:
A PDF of Lauterbach's edition of the Hebrew text, including handwritten notes, is available here.

Harm W. Hollander and Marinus de Jonge, The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs: A Commentary, 451-456.  Another English translation of Midrash Wayissa'u.  There is also translation and commentary on Testament of Judah's version earlier in the volume.

Gaston's introduction to and translation of the text in the Chronicle of Jehrameel. 

English translations and introductions to the Testament of Judah and Jubilees can be found in Charlesworth's Old Testament Pseudepigrapha.

A critical Greek text of Testament of Judah can be found in Marinus de Jonge's The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs: A Critical Edition of the Greek Text. 

James C. VanderKam's critical edition has the versional texts and English translation of Jubilees.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

A GRE Quantitative Prep Strategy

I have not had time to post much of interest here lately, as I've been using any spare time to study like a madman for the GRE.  But I thought I'd take a very short break to share one of the preparation strategies I have been using, in case others find it helpful.  Even though modern test prep has nothing to do with the ancient world and might be an odd fit for this blog, it is relevant for those of us who want to study the ancient world in graduate programs!

For some of us in the humanities the quantitative reasoning portion of the GRE can pose a challenge, unless you are that rare person who majored in philosophy and minored in mathematics.  Here is a strategy that I have been finding helpful:

(1) Manhattan Prep offers a number of GRE resources, including 6 full online practice tests.  You can take one for free and buying one of their test prep books gives you access to the other 5.  ETS, the company behind the GRE, has two practice tests of their own.  Taking these tests is a great way to get a feel for the kinds of problems that show up on the GRE and the amount of time you have to work through them.  It is also a great way to identify your weaknesses.  After taking these tests I go back through and look at which problems I got wrong, read the explanations, and do them again the right way.

(2) Sometimes I get a quantitative question wrong because of a silly mistake.  But sometimes it is because I am a bit fuzzy on the mathematical concepts needed to answer it.  In these cases I have been making use of Khan Academy.   Several friends recommended I check this site out, and it has proved very helpful.  There are video tutorials on arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and just about anything else you will encounter on the GRE.  If I don't understand a concept that comes up on the practice test I go to Khan, search for the video that addresses it, and then perform the practice problems they provide on the website.

This two phase approach of reviewing missed questions on the practice test followed by some time watching the relevant resources at Khan Academy has helped me bump my quantitative score up a few points in the practice tests.  Consider giving it a try!      

Monday, October 21, 2013

Glottolog: A Great Source for Ancient Language Bibliography

A friend recently brought Glottolog.org to my attention.  It is a world language reference website that includes some really helpful bibliographies.  Each language is assigned a unique "glottocode" and is organized according to its language family.  The entries for each glottocode include bibliographies for that language.  A few that might be particularly interesting to you:

geez1241 (Ge'ez)

lati1261 (Latin)

anci1242 (Greek)

anci1244 (Ancient Hebrew)

sama1313 (Samaritan)

ugar1238 (Ugaritic)

aram1259 (Aramaic; with further sub-categories of Eastern Aramaic, Western Aramaic, and Old Aramaic, and those sub-categories are broken down even further into categories like Mandaic)

clas1252 (Classical Syriac)

Friday, October 11, 2013

Review: "Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam."

Since the Torah portion for this week is Lech Lechah, which begins with the calling of Abram, I thought it would be an appropriate time to post a brief review of Jon D. Levenson's fascinating new book on Abraham.  

In an age of ecumenism and interfaith dialogue Abraham is often touted as a source of unity and fraternity among western religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all of which are called "Abrahamic faiths."  But while Jews, Christians, and Muslims all cherish father Abraham, they have distinct traditions and sources that they use to understand the patriarch.  Thus Abraham can actually illustrate the differences between the faiths as much as, or perhaps more than, he can serve as a source of unity.  In his Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam Jon D. Levenson questions the idea of Abraham as a unifier by exploring the different ways these western faiths have received and understood the patriarch, with particular attention given to Abraham in the Jewish tradition.  

At its heart Inheriting Abraham is a fascinating work on the history of interpretation that also raises important questions about the nature of religious traditions and contemporary interfaith dialogue.  Levenson gives a good deal of attention to what the book of Genesis tells us about Abraham.  But along the way he emphasizes that the book of Genesis by itself cannot tell us what Abraham has meant and continues to mean for the Abrahamic faith communities.  For Muslims Genesis is not canonical, so it is actually the Qur'an that provides the primary source for understanding Abraham's significance.  While Jews and Christians do consider Genesis canonical, both faiths have additional traditions about the patriarch that shape their understanding.  The Protestant impulses ingrained in our culture might urge us to get behind these traditions to the "real" Abraham, but the figure that we would end up with would not be the Abraham who is meaningful to Jews, Christians, or Muslims.  And how can an Abraham who is foreign to these faith traditions or which privileges one tradition's methods or sources over another foster real unity or dialogue?  In his conclusion Levenson argues: 

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Classical Numismatic Group

The Classical Numismatic Group website is a great place to purchase a variety of ancient coins, but it can also be a useful tool for those researching the ancient Greco-Roman world.  The site includes high quality colour photographs of both current and historical auction items, allowing you to get a better look at coins than you often get in coin catalogues.  Because the auction items are searchable, the site can also help you find coins from a particular location or with a particular figure/symbol on them.  The listings naturally give you the information you need to then track the coins down in a catalogue.  In addition to the auction items there are a number of historical articles and some general information on Greek and Roman coins as well as historical coin collecting.   One of the things that I appreciate the most about the site is that it allows you to republish their coin photographs, provided you cite the website as the source.  Their FAQ page states:

Can I use a photograph from CNG's website?
Any of our photographs may be reproduced as long as credit is given to CNG as the source of the photographs. Please include our site's URL, www.cngcoins.com, in any citation. 

I'll give an example of how the website has been useful in my own research.  I'm currently researching boars in Greco-Roman iconography, and wanted to identify Greco-Roman coins with a boar on them.  My friend Ted Erho told me about the CNG website, so I went to check it out.  I used their research page which allows me to search historical auctions.  I typed "boar" in the search field and got 1,543 hits, 6 of which were historical articles.  Not all of these hits were useful for my purposes, but a great deal of them were.  I was able to find some very interesting and helpful specimens, like this beautiful coin from Apulia with a boar on the reverse: 


Friday, September 27, 2013

Ge'ez (Ethiopic) Flashcards

When you learn an ancient language like Greek or Hebrew you get spoiled by all of the different study helps and resources that are available.  For Greek I have two different sets of flashcards, laminated quick reference guides, multiple vocabulary guides, and electronic versions of primary texts.  But when you go on to learn ancient/medieval languages like Syriac or Ge'ez study helps are a little bit harder to come by.  That's why I'm excited to be able to share these Ge'ez flashcards I've put together.

  • The set includes over 700 individual flashcards
  • The flashcards are based on the vocabulary lists in Thomas Lambdin's introductory grammar
  • The words are printed in the Ge'ez script, rather than transliteration, so you can learn to recognize them the way you'll see them in actual texts
  • There is a separate card with the plural form(s) of each noun
  • The corner of each flashcard has a number that corresponds to the chapter in which it appears in Lambdin
  • The backs of the flashcards have the English glosses

There are some instructions in the PDF on how to print and assemble the flashcards.  I recognize that some may not want to go through the work of doing that themselves, so in the very near future I may start selling some finished sets through this website (price would probably be around $30 including shipping within the U.S.).  If that's something you would be interested in, let me know.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Anabaptists and the Apocrypha: Quick Notes and Sample Passages

The so-called "Old Testament Apocrypha" are not only interesting because of the insights they give us into early Judaism, but also because of their complex and contested place in the history of the synagogue and church.  A little while back the adult Sunday school class at my Mennonite church spent a session chatting about the place of the Apocrypha in the Anabaptist tradition.  I'm posting the study guide here for anyone who might be interested in the reception of these texts in this particular Christian tradition.  To download, click:  "Anabaptists and the Apocrypha: Quick Notes and Sample Passages." 

If what you read in the study guide interests you, then definitely check out Jonathan Seiling's article, which the study guide draws on.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Thru the Torah in a Year

Simchat Torah takes place this week, which means that the Jewish annual Torah reading cycle is about to restart.  In Jewish tradition the Torah is divided up into 54 sections which are read throughout the course of a year.  Even if you're not Jewish you might consider spending a year tracking along with the weekly readings.  If you're a student of ancient literature, the Torah is an incredibly fascinating and engrossing anthology, and giving it a year of sustained study will be very rewarding.  If you've studied Hebrew the weekly Torah portion is a great way to keep your reading skills sharp.  If you're a Christian, the Torah/Pentateuch is the heart and soul of the Old Testament, and contains an interesting blend of texts that most of us are overly-familiar with (the Garden of Eden for instance) and texts that most of us have never touched (like just about all of Leviticus).  This means that reading the Torah through the year will give you the opportunity to see familiar texts with fresh eyes and encounter unfamiliar texts perhaps for the first time.  It's also a lot shorter than the "Bible in a year" reading programs many churches do.

Some resources you might find useful:

General Resources
Reading Schedule
This tells you what sections to read each week.

Chabad.org Parsha Resources
Resources on the weekly portion.

Aish.com Torah Portion Resources
More weekly resources.

Torah from JTS
Torah commentary from the Jewish Theological Seminary

The Torah: A Beginner's Guide by Joel S. Kaminsky and Joel N. Lohr
This is a great basic overview of the Torah that gives attention to historical issues as well as the use and interpretation of the Torah in both the Jewish and Christian traditions.  Affordable and accessible.  

The Bible as it Was by James L. Kugel
I try to recommend this book or its more expansive brother as often as I can.  Kugel gives us insights into how the earliest interpreters of the Torah understood it.

Exploring the Old Testament: A Guide to the Pentateuch, by Gordon J. Wenham 
This is a good introductory textbook on the Pentateuch.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Jesus the Exorcist Study Guide

The adult Sunday school class at my church is currently studying Jesus in his Jewish context, with a particular emphasis on addressing anti-Judaism.  We are looking at four specific topics: Sabbath, exorcism, nonviolence, and social justice.  I thought I'd make some of the study guides we're using available online, in case someone might find them useful.  Click here to access the PDF on "Jesus the Exorcist."  The study guide has some general discussion and several excerpts from primary sources.  It does not explicitly address anti-Judaism in the way some of our other study sessions have, but does try to show that Jesus' ministry as an exorcist is another example of his continuity with his Jewish world.  

If addressing anti-Judaism in the church and scholarship is something that is interesting to you, then you might check out Amy-Jill Levine's The Misunderstood Jew.  You can also take a gander at our earlier post on "The Good Scribe" and the study guide on Jesus and Sabbath. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Ancient Sukkot Passages: Zechariah, Jubilees, Maccabees, Plutarch, John, and Bar Kokhba

Tonight the Jewish holiday Sukkot, also known as the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles begins.  It is a rich and wonderful holiday that has its origins in the first temple period, and is one of the three pilgrimage festivals prescribed in the Torah:

And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel, saying, On the fifteenth day of this seventh month and for seven days is the Feast of Booths to the LORD.  On the first day shall be a holy convocation; you shall not do any ordinary work. For seven days you shall present food offerings to the LORD. On the eighth day you shall hold a holy convocation and present a food offering to the LORD. It is a solemn assembly; you shall not do any ordinary work. . . . . . On the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the produce of the land, you shall celebrate the feast of the LORD seven days. On the first day shall be a solemn rest, and on the eighth day shall be a solemn rest.  And you shall take on the first day the fruit of splendid trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days. You shall celebrate it as a feast to the LORD for seven days in the year. It is a statute forever throughout your generations; you shall celebrate it in the seventh month. You shall dwell in booths for seven days. All native Israelites shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 23:34-36, 39-43; Cf. Exodus 23:16, Numbers 29:12-38 and Deuteronomy 16:13-15)
Like some other biblical festivals, Sukkot has both an agricultural and an historical meaning.  Agriculturally, it is a harvest festival, but historically it commemorates the time Israel spent in the wilderness.  Sukkot is quite significant in the Bible, where it is known simply as "the festival of the LORD" or even just "the festival."  It continued to be an important holiday throughout the 2nd Temple period and beyond.  Here are a few interesting passages on Sukkot from that time (and a little bit afterwards):

Sukkot and the Nations
Then everyone who survives of all the nations that have come against Jerusalem shall go up year after year to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Booths.  And if any of the families of the earth do not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, there will be no rain on them. And if the family of Egypt does not go up and present themselves, then on them there shall be no rain; there shall be the plague with which the LORD afflicts the nations that do not go up to keep the Feast of Booths. This shall be the punishment to Egypt and the punishment to all the nations that do not go up to keep the Feast of Booths. (Zechariah 14:16-19)
The post-exilic prophet Zechariah includes Sukkot in his eschatological vision.  For Zechariah, Sukkot will one day include not only Israel but also the nations, who will make an annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem to observe the feast.  If they do not, they will experience drought (Sukkot is connected not only with harvest but also prayer for rain in the coming growing season).  The Talmud also mentions the significance of Sukkot for the nations, by identifying the 70 bulls sacrificed as representing each of the 70 nations (b.Sukkot 55b).  The Talmud also predicts that God will give the Gentiles an opportunity to prove that they are willing to obey the Torah by asking them to observe Sukkot.  However, when God sends hot weather the Gentiles will give up and kick their booths.   

Monday, September 16, 2013

Ancient TV: Live Long and Prosper

Have you ever wondered about the origins of the Vulcan salute in Star Trek?  I think it's well known to many Trekkies that Leonard Nimoy based the iconic hand gesture on a Jewish ritual he witnessed as a child.  In some streams of contemporary Judaism the descendants of the ancient priestly class offer the priestly blessing from Numbers 6:24-26:

The LORD bless you and keep you
The LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you
The LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.

In Numbers YHWH commands Moses to tell Aaron and his sons to bless the people of Israel with these beautiful words.  (Fun fact: the first line of the blessing has three words in the Hebrew, the second line has five words, and the third line has seven words, giving the sense of the blessing expanding as it progresses).  Numbers 6 does not prescribe any accompanying physical gestures or rituals, but as the blessing has been practiced throughout history a number of traditions have been associated with it, many of which are based on other passages in the Hebrew Bible.  One of these is the raising of the hands, a practice that the Talmud supports by referring to Leviticus 9:22 where Aaron lifts his hands when he blesses the people.  We see evidence that the priest raised his hands when blessing the nation in the 2nd Temple period as well:
"Then Simon came down and raised his hands over the whole congregation of Israelites, to pronounce the blessing of the Lord with his lips, and to glory in his name; and they bowed down in worship a second time, to receive the blessing from the Most High." (Sirach 50:20-21)     
So what does any of this have to do with Spock?  

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Jesus and Sabbath Study Guide

The adult Sunday school class at my church is currently studying Jesus in his Jewish context, with a particular emphasis on addressing anti-Judaism.  We are looking at four specific topics: Sabbath, exorcism, nonviolence, and social justice.  I thought I'd make some of the study guides we're using available online, in case someone might find them useful.  Click here to access the PDF on "Jesus and the Sabbath."  The study guide has some general discussion and several excerpts from primary Jewish sources on the Sabbath.  If addressing anti-Judaism in the church and scholarship is something that is interesting to you, then you might check out Amy-Jill Levine's The Misunderstood Jew.  You can also take a gander at our earlier post on "The Good Scribe."

Thursday, September 12, 2013

When Blood Cries: Abel and the Appeals of the Dead

I've been waiting a long time to work a Prince allusion into a blog title.  You might recall from Sunday school that after Cain kills his brother in the book of Genesis he decides to play dumb. Unfortunately for him, YHWH finds out about the crime, and confronts him during their little post-murder interrogation: "What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground." (Gen 4:10)  

One of the fascinating things about the history of interpretation is that one little verse can give rise to a rich and varied tradition.  When we look at later Jewish and Christian literature we see that YHWH's claim that Abel's blood cried out from the ground inspired some sacred speculation about Abel and the postmortem cries of the murdered and the martyred.  For instance, in 1st Enoch 22 the antediluvian visionary Enoch gets a tour of the abode of the dead by an angelic docent.  While there are some difficulties with the text as we have it, the gist is this: the souls of the dead are being kept in hollows/caves carved into a mountain in the west.  Unlike popular Protestant conceptions of the afterlife, the souls of the dead are not divided into two realms with the righteous souls ascending to heaven and the unrighteous descending to hell.  Instead, all souls go to the same non-heavenly realm where they are placed into four (or three?) bins for safekeeping until judgment day.  When traveling towards judgment you can fly first class, business class, coach, or be neatly stowed in the baggage compartment.  Kensky compares this intermediate state to a jail, where prisoners are kept during trial, which is different from prison where they get sent after sentencing (the final judgment).  

While surveying the mountain Enoch notices something interesting, which he asks Raphael to explain for him:
"There I saw the spirit of a dead man making suit, and his lamentation went up to heaven and cried and made suit.  Then I asked Raphael, the watcher and holy one who was with me, and said to him, 'The Spirit that makes suit -- whose is it -- that thus his lamentation goes up and makes suit unto heaven?'  And he answered me and said, 'This is the spirit that went forth from Abel, whom Cain his brother murdered.  And Abel makes accusation against him until his posterity perishes from the face of the earth, and his posterity is obliterated from the posterity of men." (22:5-7)

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Good Scribe: a Corrective to Anti-Jewish Readings of the Gospels?

Most of us are probably familiar with Jesus' "good Samaritan," but what about the "good scribe"?  The adult Sunday school class at my church is currently studying Jesus in his Jewish context and attempting to understand and appreciate Jesus without turning early Judaism into a negative foil.  Anti-Jewish readings of the gospels have become so engrained in our culture, both within and outside of the church, that we have to be quite intentional about re-reading these texts with sensitivity to anti-Judaism.  This goes for both devotional and secular readers, laypersons and scholars.  One aspect of this re-reading is identifying and exploring the Jewish characters that get good press in the gospels.  That of course includes Jesus and his followers (when they're not being portrayed as blockheads), who are Jewish characters, but it also includes those figures who do not seem to be part of the Jesus movement.   

One of these characters is Mark's "good scribe."  As a rule, the scribes do not get very good press in Mark.  The authority of Jesus' teaching is contrasted with theirs (1:22), they accuse Jesus of blasphemy (2:6-7), challenge Jesus' eating partners (2:16), accuse him of demon possession (3:22), question his disciples' pre-meal hygiene (7:5), and reject and conspire to kill him (8:31, 10:33, 11:18, 14:1, 14:43).  They also argue with the disciples (9:14), question the source of Jesus' authority (11:28), and mock him.  Jesus even warns people to beware of the scribes (12:38).  Of course some of these passages do not need to be read negatively.  Asking about the source of Jesus' authority (11:28) is a perfectly legitimate question, and arguing/deliberating can be a very good thing (9:14; perhaps they were trading exorcism tips, given the context?).  It's clear though that some of these passages try to paint scribes as the "bad guys."  That's why it is so interesting that near the end of Mark's 12th chapter we find an encounter between Jesus and what we might call a "good scribe."  This occurs at the end of a series of interlocutors (I sometimes envision a queue forming) who represent different groups.  First it's the Pharisees and Herodians asking about taxes.  Then it's the Sadducees asking about widows and resurrection.  And finally, its a scribe: 
"And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?”  
Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”  
And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that he is one, and there is no other but he; and to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 
And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any question. (12:28-34)

Two Thumbs Down: Biting Literary Criticism in Dionysius of Halicarnassus

I always cringe when I read harsh and mean-spirited reviews of someone's literary or academic work.  Hiding behind a pen (or keyboard . . . or touchscreen) seems to give some people the courage to say nasty things that most of us would never say to someone's face.  Like most human phenomena, biting reviews are nothing new.  I was recently reading Dionysius of Halicarnassus' criticism of Hegesias of Magnesia.  Check out his not-so-friendly review:
"Those authors who have not paid attention to this part of their craft (rhythm) have produced writings which are either mean or diffuse, or have some other deformity or disfigurement.  The first, middlemost and last in this is that sophist from Magnesia, Hegesias.  Concerning him, by Zeus and all the other gods, I do not know what I should say.  Was he so insensitive and dense that he could not envisage which the ignoble or the noble rhythms are?  Or was he so bedevilled and mentally deranged that he still chose the worse, though he knew the better?  I am inclined to believe the latter: for it is a characteristic of ignorance that it often lands on its feet, wilfulness never does.  At any rate, in the large volume of writing which the man has left behind him, you could not find a single page that has been felicitously composed.  Indeed, he seems to have supposed that his way of writing is superior to that of his predecessors, and to have practised it with enthusiasm; yet any man of sense who fell into such errors under the stress of impromptu speech would feel ashamed." (De Compositione Verborum, 18)
Dionysius goes on to quote an excerpt from Hegesias on Alexander the Great and then compare it unfavorably with a similar episode from Homer's Iliad.  He closes with this last jab at Hegesias:
". . . the manner of description used by the Magnesian could be adopted only by women or emasculated men, and not seriously even by them, but in a spirit of mockery or ridicule.  What then is the cause of the nobility of these lines (from Homer), and of the miserable inadequacy of the other drivel?  The main cause, if not the only one, is the difference in the rhythms.  In the passage of Homer there is not a single undignified or undistinguished line, whereas in that from Hegesias not a single sentence will fail to give offence." 
(De Compositione Verborum, 18)
W. Rhys Roberts identifies the use of double trochees as the primary offense that made Dionysius' poetic blood boil.  Let that be a lesson to you: watch your trochees.  Hegesias of Magnesia is typically considered the founder of the Asianic style. 

Dionysius was not alone in his criticisms of poor Hegesias.  Cicero also had a few unkind words of his own:
"Hegesias . . . was so vain of his own taste for Atticism, that he considered his predecessors, who were really masters of it, as mere rustics in comparison of himself.  But what can be more insipid, more frivolous, or more puerile, than that very concinnity of expression which he actually acquired?" (Brutus 83)
If something you write ever gets an unfavourable review or grade, just remind yourself of these passages.  As long as your work is not being called "drivel" or "miserably inadequate" then you're still ahead of old Hegesias.

You can read up a bit on Hegesias here and here.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Second Temple Rosh Hashanah Passages

Horns, honey-dipped apples, and some rest -- does it get any better than that?  Tonight Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, begins.  While it does not seem to have taken on its current name or some of its traditional meanings until the Rabbinic period, it has roots in the Hebrew Bible and 2nd Temple Judaism when it was sometimes called "the Day of Memorial" or "the Feast of Trumpets."  These names were drawn from the Torah, where the Israelites are commanded to observe a memorial day of rest and sacrifice that is proclaimed with trumpet blasts:

“And the LORD said to Moses, ‘Say to the people of Israel, In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a day of solemn rest, a memorial proclaimed with blast of trumpets, a holy convocation. You shall do no laborious work; and you shall present an offering by fire to the LORD.’” (Lev 23:23-25; see also Numbers 29:1-6 for another description of the festival and Nehemiah 8 for the reading of the Law on the first of the seventh month)

What exactly is supposed to be remembered isn't stated in the text, and in the ancient Jewish tradition we find a variety of things that come to be associated with the day.  This includes the giving of the Law on Sinai, peace, Abraham's calling, the draining of the waters from the Flood, God's judgment, and creation.  Below are a few of the texts that mention the first day of the seventh month in the 2nd Temple period.

The Jewish philosopher Philo identified two different elements of this "feast of trumpets," a Jewish national significance and a common, universal significance.  The practice of sounding trumpets was intended to recall the trumpet blast at Sinai, a significance peculiar to the Jewish nation (though the reach and implications of the law was not constrained to them alone).  It's universal significance is based on the trumpets' use as an instrument of warfare, which is meant to remind people that God is the giver of peace in the human and non-human realms. 
"THE EIGHTH FESTIVAL: Immediately after comes the festival of the sacred moon; in which it is the custom to play the trumpet in the temple at the same moment that the sacrifices are offered. From which practice this is called the true feast of trumpets, and there are two reasons for it, one peculiar to the nation, and the other common to all mankind. Peculiar to the nation, as being a commemoration of that most marvellous, wonderful, and miraculous event that took place when the holy oracles of the law were given; for then the voice of a trumpet sounded from heaven, which it is natural to suppose reached to the very extremities of the universe, so that so wondrous a sound attracted all who were present, making them consider, as it is probable, that such mighty events were signs betokening some great things to be accomplished. And what more great or more beneficial thing could come to men than laws affecting the whole race?And what was common to all mankind was this: the trumpet is the instrument of war, sounding both when commanding the charge and the retreat. ... There is also another kind of war, ordained of God, when nature is at variance with itself, its different parts attacking one another. And by both these kinds of war the things on earth are injured. They are injured by the enemies, by the cutting down of trees, and by conflagrations; and also by natural injuries, such as droughts, heavy rains, lightning from heaven, snow and cold; the usual harmony of the seasons of the year being transformed into a want of all concord. On this account it is that the law has given this festival the name of a warlike instrument, in order to show the proper gratitude to God as the giver of peace, who has abolished all seditions in cities, and in all parts of the universe, and has produced plenty and prosperity, not allowing a single spark that could tend to the destruction of the crops to be kindled into flame. (Philo, The Special Laws, 2:188-192) 

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Greek Pictionary

"Jackal . . . it's a jackal!"
One of the students in the Greek class I teach at my church recently suggested we try something new: playing Greek Pictionary.  This sounded like much more fun than a boring vocabulary quiz, so we gave it a try.  We focused on reviewing the vocabulary from four earlier chapters in our textbook.  I would write down a word (in Greek) from one of those four chapters, then pass it off to a volunteer who would try to get the rest of the group to guess the word by drawing on a dry-erase board.  To properly guess the word it needed to be written down in Greek (guessing the English definition was not enough).  It was fun!  Some thoughts if you test it out in your own ancient language classes:

  • If you're unfamiliar with the rules of Pictionary, check out good old Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pictionary
  • Open book vs. closed book?  We did it open book, but if you wanted to make it more challenging, you could do it closed book.
  • Competitive or collaborative?  You could have the whole group working together to figure out the word, or you could break up into teams.
  • When people play Pictionary there are a lot of different strategies to get your team to guess the word.  For instance, if your word is "wellness" you might try to draw something that communicates the meaning of the word, like someone looking healthy.  Alternatively, you might draw some pictures that will get your team to guess the individual sounds that make up the word, a "sounds like" strategy.  So you might draw a picture of a water well to get them to say 'well' and then a picture of the Loch Ness monster to get them to say 'ness.'  If you want to crank up the difficulty level (maybe for a second year readings class?) you might prohibit your students from using any English words if they use a "sounds like" strategy.  If they want to do use this strategy they have to use Greek words.  So in the example I gave, they could not draw a water well to get someone to say the sound "well."  But they could draw a water well to get someone to say "phrear" (which is probably not going to help them at all).       
If you try it out, let me know how it goes!

After we played I did a little Internet search, and it looks like some homeschoolers are already finding this (and charades!) a fun way to learn Greek vocab.   

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Ancient Aliens, Christian Apologetics, and the Narrative of Ancient Anachronism

This is a brief description of a little research project that's on my docket once my thesis is finished.  If you come across any examples of the narrative of ancient anachronism, I'd be much obliged if you sent them my way.  I became interested in analyzing the ancient astronaut theory when I did a search on Google+ for communities dedicated to the study of the ancient world.  I was shocked and a little dismayed when my search for "ancient" turned up a group on ancient aliens that had over 2,000 members, while the next largest group (Ancient Greek Philosophy) had only 200.  This got me thinking that while the ancient alien stuff may seem far out there, it has become one of the primary ways that ordinary people are exploring the ancient world.  I think that invites interaction with and critique of the movement by those who spend their days studying the ancient world in an academic setting.    

"In recent years the ancient astronaut theory has gained a lot of interest and support in popular culture, thanks in large part to the History Channel's "Ancient Aliens" series.  This theory claims that extra-terrestrial beings visited earth in ancient times, and that we can find evidence of their visit in ancient religion, mythology, and architecture.  The theory is built on assumptions about the primitive nature of ancient peoples and thus their inability to carry out many of the building feats of the ancient past.  Because they were too primitive to construct such things, a higher, more advanced race must be responsible for them.  Interestingly, this is not the only example of this narrative being employed in discussions of the ancient world.  Some Christians have used this narrative in their apologetic interpretations of the Bible.  They assume not only the technological and scientific inferiority of ancient peoples, but their moral inferiority as well.  They then attempt to identify examples of comparatively more scientifically and morally advanced concepts in the Bible.  While proponents of the ancient astronaut theory explain the supposed architectural anachronisms they identify with recourse to extra-terrestrials, Christian apologists see the scientific and moral anachronisms they find in the Bible as the result of divine intervention.  In this study we will explore this narrative of ancient anachronism, comparing the ways that it has been used both by proponents of the ancient astronaut theory and by Christian apologists.  In both cases we find groups creating a false anachronism in the ancient world and then offering an explanation for this anachronism that involves extra-human intervention.  In both cases the false anachronism is based on more basic assumptions about the primitive nature of ancient peoples."

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Questions about Canon

[Study resource for adult Christian formation class at my church on August 25th 2013]

Please read through the following resource from Mennonite New Testament scholar Loren Johns in preparation for our discussion.  The Google Books link will take you to his essay.

Johns, Loren L.  “Was ‘Canon’ Ever God’s Will?” Pages 41-45 in Jewish and Christian Scriptures: the Funciton of ‘Canonical’ and ‘Non-Canonical Religious Texts. Edited by James H. Charlesworth and Lee Martin McDonald. London: T&T Clark, 2010.

Questions about Canon
“Canon” comes from a Greek word that means “measuring rod.”  The biblical canon is the list of books that is considered to be specially authoritative and that make up our Bibles.  There are a lot of important historical, theological, and practical questions surrounding the canon, but they receive little attention within most churches.  Here are some questions to consider:

How did we get the Bibles that we have?  Why do we have these partiulcar books, and not others? Why do different Christians have different books in their Old Testaments?

How do we justify what is inside our Bibles?  What good reasons can we offer for having the particular books we do and not others?

Does it make sense to claim the Bible and not church tradition is our authority, when it was centuries of church tradition that made the Bible in the first place?

What does it mean for a book to be in the Bible?  Are all books in the Bible fundamentally different from all books outside of the Bible?  And if so, what makes them different?

Is our Bible “flat”?  In other words, do all of the books inside have the same authority? 

Can we add or remove books of the Bible?  Why or why not?

Do we need a clearly defined, closed list of writings?  Do we need a ‘Bible’? 

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Leaves on a Tree: Homer and Ben Sira on Human Mortality

What does Jerusalem have to do with Ionia?  

At the moment my research focuses on the influence of Homer's epics, particularly the Iliad, on early Jewish literature.  While there continues to be academic disagreement over the extent of Greek literary influence on some early Jewish texts, it is indisputable that some ancient Jewish writers read/heard the blind bard's epics and allowed his voice to echo off the nooks and crannies of their own works. (See, for example, my earlier notes on Theodotus and Sosates).  One passage where there has been some scholarly agreement on Homeric influence is Ben Sira 14:18, which scholars like Th. Middendorp, R.A.F. MacKenzie, Benjamin Wright, Martin West, and Jack T. Sanders believe is influenced in some way by Iliad 6.146-149.  Check out the similarities between the two texts:
Ben Sira 14:18 (MS A)
 {כפרח עלה על עץ רענן / שזה נובל ואחר גומל {צומח
כן דורות בשר ודם אחד גוע ואחד גומל

“As leaves grow upon a green tree, Whereof one withereth, and another springeth up;
So of the generations of flesh and blood, One perisheth, and another ripeneth.” (Schechter and 

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Introduzione Alla Lingua Ge'ez: the must-have companion to Lambdin

When this little book arrived in the mail I got pretty excited.  If you've ever used Lambdin's introduction to Ge'ez/Classical Ethiopic you know that it's a great text with one feature that some of us have a love/hate relationship with: everything is in transliteration.

The nice thing about the transliteration is that it (1) allows you to start learning grammar and vocabulary while you're still trying to get a handle on the massive syllabary, (2) makes the book more accessible for comparative Semiticists, and (3) helps you see two important features that are not clearly communicated in the Ge'ez script: gemination (consonant doubling) and when the sixth order consonants are terminal vs. vocalized.  The bad thing is . . . it's transliterated.  The actual Ethiopic texts you will read are not transliterated, and learning the vocab and grammar in transliteration can make it pretty tough to switch mental gears when you begin reading texts.

That's why Osvaldo Raineri's Introduzione Alla Lingua Ge'ez, an Italian translation of Lambdin, is so useful.  It presents the vocabulary and exercises in the Ge'ez script (and transliteration early in the book).  This makes it an excellent, even necessary companion to English Lambdin.  If you have both volumes you get the best of both worlds.

You can look for it in a library at WorldCat.   
You can find it used or new through BookFinder (ISBN is 8872103355).
I got mine new through Deastore.com for 24 euros. (Important: if you buy it here, be sure to go through the registration process in order to get free international shipping -- the quick PayPal purchasing process does not seem to give you the option for free shipping.

Thursday, August 15, 2013


My Big Fat Greek resource page (ok, as far as resource pages go it is fairly slender right now.  But we'll get there).

Greek is a wonderful language that began in the ancient world and continues to be spoken today.  For the student of the ancient Mediterranean world Greek is possibly the most important language to learn.  It's the language of Homer, Hesiod, Herodotus, Plato, Euripides, the Septuagint, the New Testament, and many of the early Christian writers.  Because of Alexander the Great's conquests Greek became the lingua franca of the ancient Mediterranean world in the late 4th century BCE, and continued to be widely used into Roman times.

Whenever languages are around a long time they go through stages of development (think about Chaucer vs. Shakespeare vs. Stephen King), and Greek is no different.  In addition to historical developments, different dialects of a language can exist simultaneously.  This all means you have different choices when you decide to learn the language: Homeric Greek, Attic Greek, Koine (or "Biblical") Greek, Byzantine Greek, or Modern Greek.  If you want to be a real nerd you can even learn Linear B/Mycenaean Greek, which will allow you to read riveting inscriptions with lists of goods and possessions (you accountants/ancient language aficionados might enjoy this).

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Ancient Numismatic Mythology

Heads or Minotaur?  

Coins are an essential piece of evidence in the ancient historian's toolbox, and fortunately there are some Internet resources that make it easier to find and explore some of this evidence.  A website I am finding interesting is Ancient Numismatic Mythology, which can be found at http://ancientcoinage.org  The site is "dedicated to ancient coins that depict popular themes from Greek and Roman mythology."  Coins are divided up based on theme, such as: the Trojan War, Theseus and the Minotaur, Labors of Hercules, or King Midas and the golden touch.  Each page is filled with colour photographs of coins from that category.  

Check it out, and see what interesting things you find!